Shebab briefly seize AU base in Somalia after suicide attack

Mogadishu (AFP) - Somalia's Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab militants briefly seized control of an African Union base Tuesday after ramming a suicide car bomb into it, the AU said, adding it had regained control.

The AU mission in Somalia (AMISOM) said the base at Janale, manned by Ugandan troops, "came under attack from Al-Shebab militants" with the attackers using a "car loaded with explosives to trigger the attack" after which they engaged the soldiers in a gunbattle.

"Although our troops undertook a tactical withdrawal following the initial vehicle-borne explosive attack, they have since consolidated and regained full control of the base," the African Union statement added.

It did not give details of the number of casualties suffered in the morning attack but admitted that some soldiers had died.

Nine hours earlier, AMISOM had denied in a Twitter post that the Janale base, housing some 150 soldiers, had been taken over by the militants.

Witnesses said the Shebab had taken over the camp and looted the weapons stores.

They spoke of more than 20 bodies at the site, while the Shebab claimed to have killed 50. AMISOM was unable to confirm any casualty figures.

The Shebab said the attack in Janale district, 80 kilometres (50 miles) southwest of Mogadishu in the Lower Shabelle region, was revenge for the killing of seven civilians by Ugandan troops at a wedding in the town of Merka in July.

"The attack started with a suicide bomb explosion and the fighters stormed the base, engaging in fighting that continued inside the military camp for about 40 minutes," said Shebab spokesman Abdulaziz Abu Musab.

He claimed that "about 50 soldiers" were killed in the attack and that others drowned in a nearby river while fleeing.

"The mujahedeen fighters have taken complete control of the town and the military camp as well and looted all the heavy weaponry," Abu Musab said. "This attack was aimed to retaliate against the killing of innocent civilians in Merka by the Ugandan troops."

- Collecting bodies -

Mohamed Shire, a Somali military commander in the area, said there had been "a heavy explosion and fighting."

Witnesses said Shebab fighters had breached the barricades around the camp.

"Many people stormed the camp after AU soldiers fled, and they started looting together with Al-Shebab," said local resident Hussein Idris, who said gunmen loaded corpses of AU troops onto trucks.

The Shebab has previously gathered the bodies of dead soldiers for use in propaganda videos of its attacks.

"They were collecting dead bodies, I saw nearly 30 soldiers killed during the fighting," Idris said.

Another witness, Ahmed Ali, said he had seen AMISOM troops fleeing the base, and had counted as many as 20 bodies.

"The fighters also looted weapons and ammunition," Ali said.

Another local witness described how a Shebab suicide bomber first attacked the camp gates.

"Heavy fighting broke out after a suicide bomber rammed his vehicle into the camp," said Ali Moalim Yusuf. "I saw heavily armed fighters chanting 'Allahu Akbar' ('God is greatest') pouring into the base."

The Shebab, fighting to overthrow Somalia's internationally-backed and AU-protected government, has launched a string of similar attacks.

In June, Shebab fighters killed dozens of Burundian soldiers when they overran an AMISOM outpost northwest of Mogadishu. The militants also stage frequent suicide attacks inside the capital.

But the 22,000-strong AMISOM force has also made significant gains against the Shebab, pushing them out of several strongholds in the southwest of the country.

Decades of fighting and erratic rains mean that some three million people in the Horn of Africa nation remain in need of aid, according to the United Nations.

On Monday, aid experts warned Somalia remains in a "critical" state four years after a devastating famine in which over 250,000 people died, with a sharp rise in those needing food aid in the past six months.